Gail Grate (1992)

I think my experiences have been different than for many African American actresses. For the last six years, I have worked primarily in roles where I have been cast non-traditionally. I have always looked for the most challenging parts and have been fortunate enough to have received some of them. In the last few years, I have portrayed Eliza in Pygmalion at Yale Rep and the Arena Stage, Grusha in The Caucasian Chalk Circle at the Arena, and Joan in St. Joan at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, among other roles.

I approach every role by way of the same process, whether Eliza or a historical character like Joan of Arc or a contemporary character. I do a lot of work on paper and a lot of reading, gathering as much information as I can about the time in which the character lived, the circumstances of her life. Once rehearsals get under way, I find I throw most of it out. I use that information as a foundation, but the relationships and actions as defined by the play are paramount, not what may be written in history books. For the character, the world begins when the lights go up and ends three hours later.

While by virtue of my skin tone and my features, my characters become African-descended in appearance, I do not draw upon my African heritage to inform every character. The characters I play are from whatever country the playwright says they are from, just as I am an American of African descent. In the case of my portrayal of St. Joan, it was the 15th Century story of a brown-skinned teenager from Lorraine, France who heard voices. I believe that my job, in collaboration with the director, is simply to create a believable, true, compelling characterization of the playwright’s words. I can only hope that the audience will become involved in that experience and not stand outside of it, making lineage charts in their heads to figure how this girl might have got from Africa to France.

Early on when I was being cast non-traditionally, I felt there were definite expectations or lack of expectations from the staffs of theaters and, perhaps, even from fellow actors. Polite smiles, looks out of the corners of eyes. Was she going to cut it? I’ve been accustomed to that, to being the only one who was different, or one of only a few, since I was a kid. But, it’s been gratifying to see those fears, those prejudices drop by the wayside as rehearsal goes on or during the run of the play, and to be regarded as an artist.

This same process of overcoming preconceived notions holds true with audiences as well, but on an ongoing basis. Every night there’s a new audience. In a general way, it has not been a big deal. At the Arena, for instance, audiences are getting used to seeing faces of color, whether non-traditionally cast or in a culture-specific cast. Still, you can sometimes feel an audience getting used to you. When, for the first five minutes, it feels as if they are asking themselves, “Is she black?” Maybe this is true for any actor, that the visual is the first thing an audience takes in. Hopefully, if you are doing your job, they become fully engaged by the character and just follow the story.

Diversifying the audience is for me the next frontier. This might mean changing the entire approach to developing an audience. I didn’t pay attention to the lack of diversity in the audience at first. I was accustomed to performing for predominantly white, middle and upper middle class audiences. Then, when I was performing Pygmalion at the Arena, I went to see a production of My Children, My Africa in the Old Vat, another one of their theaters. Ninety percent of the audience was black. Where did these people come from? How was this show marketed differently than Pygmalion? That’s when it became clear to me that diversity can’t just stop at the footlights. We must work hard to expose our work to audiences of all kinds.

Again, I realize how fortunate I am. To be here now, to have the skills and the opportunity to take advantage of this change in perspective about who can do what, about the creative possibilities. I think of actresses like Gloria Foster or Ruby Dee and the avenues that were not open to them. I honor them for surviving those times and for continuing to work. The fact that they were there is why I aspired to be a great actress, and still aspire to it.

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